The Science Behind the Sideshow

Have you ever wanted to know how someone walks barefoot on broken glass? What ’embouchure’ means and why it’s important in fire-eating? Wondered what it would feel like to stand on someone else’s head? Well, I’ve got a show for you! But you’ve got to come to Chicago this winter.

Now, I know it seems like science shows just aren’t what they used to be. Presentations on chemistry, electricity, architecture, botany and more were once so popular that the first one-way street was created in London to help control the crowds…in the early 1800s. Patrons heading to the Royal Institution to attend talks and demonstrations “made for unbecoming chaos in the street,” so the Institution found it necessary to provide coach drivers with instructions on how they should pick up and drop off passengers on Albemarle Street outside.

Imagine if science presentations were as popular as an iPhone release… how great would that be?

Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During the “War of Currents,” both Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla used public demonstrations and stage shows to build support for AC and DC current.*  Tesla introduced the “Tesla Polyphase System” to the throngs in attendance at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and specially-scheduled trains transported enthusiastic crowds to Edison’s demonstration of incandescent lightbulbs illuminating the streets of Menlo Park.

Quite literally, that was lit.

But I was talking about a show that you can see today, right? Thom Britton is bringing that same ebullient enthusiasm for science back to the stage in a series of Chicago shows this December and January: FreakShow & Tell.

Photo: Serena Valenti
Photo: Serena Valenti

Over a decade ago, Thom created FreakShow & Tell to answer the barrage of questions he regularly received before, during and after his performances. People wanted to know how he could possibly eat fire or drive a nail into his head, or why he’d want to walk on broken glass or stand on an electrified plate.

This entertaining and (oddly) educational show fuses science, history, anatomy, physics and a whole slew of of snark with genuine sideshow acts such as The Electric Man, The Human Block Head, glass walking and more.

“His one-man show breaks circus acts such as fire-swallowing down to bare-bones physics.”

Photo: Serena Valenti
Photo: Serena Valenti

And this is no hands-off, observation-only demonstration; the front row is inches from the action and audience participation can make you a part of the show.

Of special note to the scientific- and education-minded: even if you’ve seen the show before, the information presented in FreakShow &Tell has indeed changed since its conception… because facts matter. Thom is refreshingly ready to change the show if he’s gotten something wrong, even when it requires a rewrite.

Thom is certainly a friend to the Lab: he helped teach me to eat fire and Katie created some of his promo posters. He’s performed at incredible venues including the Museum of Science and Industry and the Lyric Opera House, and countless colleges and universities bring him back to perform year after year. And if reviews are your thing, FreakShow & Tell is “Recommended” and a “Member’s Pick” by the Chicago Reader, so if you’ll be in Chicago in December or January, get your tickets to the show here.

Go science!

(Though Edison’s apocryphal execution of Topsy the elephant is in keeping with the over-the-top nature of some of these demonstrations, he was personally uninvolved.)

Beth Voigt

Beth is a graphic designer in Chicago, a superhero in her own mind, and absolutely nothing on TV. She wrangles fonts professionally, pummels code amateurishly, and has been known to shove fire in her face for fun. Fond of volunteering, late-night bursts of productivity, and making snacks, she dislikes grocery shopping and sticky public transit and is only on her second smartphone. Her opinion is that you should try everything twice; if you don't like it, you were probably doing it wrong the first time around. If external links are your thing, here are links to Twitter and Instagram, and you can support her ongoing weirdness by buying her a coffee or six.

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